A mixture of visionary progressivism and repugnant racism, Abraham Lincoln’s attitude toward slavery is the most troubling aspect of his public life, one that gets a probing assessment in this study. Columbia historian and Bancroft Prize winner Foner (Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men) traces the complexities of Lincoln’s evolving ideas about slavery and African-Americans: while he detested slavery, he also publicly rejected political and social equality for blacks, dragged his feet (critics charged) on emancipating slaves and accepting black recruits into the Union army, and floated schemes for “colonizing” freedmen overseas almost to war’s end. Foner situates this record within a lucid, nuanced discussion of the era’s turbulent racial politics; in his account Lincoln is a canny operator, cautiously navigating the racist attitudes of Northern whites, prodded--and sometimes willing to be prodded--by abolitionists and racial egalitarians pressing faster reforms. But as Foner tells it, Lincoln also embodies a society-wide transformation in consciousness, as the war’s upheavals and the dynamic new roles played by African-Americans made previously unthinkable claims of freedom and equality seem inevitable. Lincoln is no paragon in Foner’s searching portrait, but something more essential--a politician with an open mind and a restless conscience. 16 pages of illus., 3 maps. (Oct.)
David Brion Davis
“While many thousands of books deal with Lincoln and slavery, Eric Foner has written the definitive account of this crucial subject, illuminating in a highly original and profound way the interactions of race, slavery, public opinion, politics, and Lincoln's own character that led to the wholly improbable uncompensated emancipation of some four million slaves. Even seasoned historians will acquire fresh and new perspectives from reading The Fiery Trial.”
The 2011 Pulitzer Prize Committee
“A well orchestrated examination of Lincoln’s changing views of slavery, bringing unforeseeable twists and a fresh sense of improbability to a familiar story.”
Foner's nuanced account contends that Lincoln unwaveringly opposed slavery throughout his life and moved in a consistent, calculated antislavery direction during his presidency. Race emerged as a focal point when it became necessary to convey how enlisting African Americans was vital to saving the Union. (LJ 8/10)
Renowned scholar Foner (History/Columbia Univ.; Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction,2005, etc.) adroitly traces how personal conviction and force of circumstance guided Abraham Lincoln toward the radical step of emancipation.
The author's observation that Lincoln was slow "to begin to glimpse the possibility of racial equality in America" will come as no surprise to academics, but this impressionist portrait of the president vividly details an unexpected aspect of this famous life—how Lincoln pursued his destiny within the larger antislavery movement, a broad-based network of pressure groups that encompassed everything from abolitionists, who insisted on social and political equality, to racists, who loathed the presence of blacks as a social and economic threat. In the 1850s, Lincoln re-entered politics by identifying containment of the "peculiar institution's" westward expansion as "the lowest common denominator of antislavery sentiment." Foner is particularly impressive in explaining the hesitations, backward steps and trial balloons—including placating slaveholding border states and proposing colonizing blacks outside the United States—that preceded his embrace of emancipation.While many key events in the legendary career are examined—e.g., the debates with Stephen A. Douglas—other formerly unnoticed aspects appear in unexpected bold relief—e.g., a thriving Illinois legal practice in which only 34 cases out of 5,000 involved African-Americans. Lincoln's assassination left unanswered how he would have integrated freed slaves into American society. But Foner's summary of his qualities—"intellectually curious, willing to listen to criticism, attuned to the currents of northern public opinion, and desirous of getting along with Congress"—leaves little doubt that he would have managed Reconstruction better than his haplessly stubborn successor, Andrew Johnson.
Look elsewhere for an understanding of the president as person, but linger here for an indispensable analysis of Lincoln navigating through the treacherous political currents of his times.
David S. Reynolds
Do we need yet another book on Lincoln…Well, yes, we doif the book is by so richly informed a commentator as Eric Foner…[he] tackles what would seem to be an obvious topic, Lincoln and slavery, and manages to cast new light on it…Because of his broad-ranging knowledge of the 19th century, Foner is able to provide the most thorough and judicious account of Lincoln's attitudes toward slavery that we have to date…More cogently than any previous historian, Foner examines the political events that shaped Lincoln and ultimately brought out his true greatness.
The New York Times
The value of Eric Foner's The Fiery Trial lies in its comprehensive review of mostly familiar material; in its sensible evaluation of the full range of information already available about Abraham Lincoln and slavery; and in the deft thoroughness of its scholarship. The Fiery Trial does well what has already been done before "but ne'er so well expressed."
The Washington Post
David W. Blight - San Francisco Chronicle
“Moving and rewarding. . . . A master historian at work.”
James M. McPherson - New York Review of Books
“No one else has written about [Lincoln's] trajectory of change with such balance, fairness, depth of analysis, and lucid precision of language.”
David S. Reynolds - The New York Times Book Review
“Do we need another book on Lincoln? Yes, we do—if the book is by so richly informed a commentator as Eric Foner.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Moving and rewarding. . . . A master historian at work.” David W. Blight
New York Review of Books
“No one else has written about [Lincoln's] trajectory of change with such balance, fairness, depth of analysis, and lucid precision of language.” James M. McPherson
The New York Times Book Review
“Do we need another book on Lincoln? Yes, we do—if the book is by so richly informed a commentator as Eric Foner.” David S. Reynolds
From the Publisher
"[A] searching portrait." Publishers Weekly